Small Changes

The news about my oven is not all stinky, I’m glad to report. I bought a new pair of cloth oven mitts, which arrived in the mail last week. While this may seem a trivial everyday purchase, it wasn’t actually that easy. Oven mitts in the 21st century ordinarily are no longer sold in pairs, nor are they made of cloth. The big-box stores are all selling sets that consist of one silicone mitt and one potholder. Although the new materials last longer than cloth and are more heat-resistant, I don’t like them because they feel so unnatural; and to me, it seems safer to have both hands covered, just in case something slips. So when my oven mitts wore out, I decided it was worth the time and trouble of searching the Internet for another old-fashioned cloth pair.

That got me thinking about the discomforts of modern life in a more general sense. Because today’s way of living has diverged so far from the world our ancestors knew, many things in our environment make us uncomfortable, either consciously or unconsciously. Andrew Lehman has suggested that autistic people may function as society’s canary in the coal mine, drawing attention to conditions that are detrimental to the health of the human species. I believe that this is an accurate observation with regard to the psychological stress caused by living in an unnatural environment.

Many autistic people have sensory hypersensitivities that make certain features of the modern environment uncomfortable or painful, such as fluorescent lights, loud background noise, and harsh artificial scents and textures. To venture a guess, there may well be a large number of non-autistics who are not fully comfortable with such things either, but who are not sure exactly what is bothering them. Although they are not consciously aware of what is causing their discomfort, they feel anxious and unsettled on an instinctive primal level. Some may take medications for depression or anxiety to cope with our stressful society, while others self-medicate with alcohol or street drugs.

To the extent that autistics tend to be more aware of uncomfortable things in our environment, while also being less inclined to put up with them just for the sake of conformity, it can reasonably be argued that autistics give our society valuable input on what works and what doesn’t. Instead of teaching autistic children to quietly endure uncomfortable situations, our society ought to be paying more attention to why our environment has become so unpleasant for so many people. It’s often the case that small changes can have significant effects, for good or ill—especially when the cumulative effects are taken into account.

Modern technology has given us far more options, with regard to both our living conditions and our public spaces, than our ancestors ever dreamed it was possible to have. We clearly don’t lack the ability to design a more flexible and accommodating environment—one that would respect our unconscious expectations and thus would be more comfortable for everyone. What’s needed here is the will to take constructive action.

on 03/9/11 in featured, The Unconscious | No Comments | Read More

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